Nov. 20--The hunt for weapons of mass destruction at New Jersey ports is getting more rigorous.
Federal authorities will soon bring online 12 new gates that can detect whether a container passing through has nuclear material inside, closing a gap in port security that allows such materials to enter the United States.
The detectors are the latest in a series of measures introduced by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency to tighten port security since 9/11.
Experts say it's only a matter of time before a terrorist tries to smuggle a nuclear bomb or other weapon of mass destruction into the U.S., probably in a shipping container -- of which more than a million enter New York and New Jersey ports each year.
They worry that aside from the obvious danger, even a threat that shuts the port and disrupts the flow of goods could damage the economy.
Since February 2004, the customs department has installed the detector gates at four of the six terminals in New York and New Jersey ports. But those monitor only about 65 percent of trucks leaving the port, said Kevin McCabe, the customs department's chief of seaport enforcement in the New York harbor.
The new gates -- which are installed but not yet operational at Maher Terminals in Elizabeth -- will mean 98 percent of trucks leaving the port area get checked, McCabe said.
"This is an exit gate strategy," McCabe said. "Let's hit everything before it leaves."
Sam Crane, Maher Terminals' vice president of external affairs, said the company is working with customs officials to get the detectors online as soon as possible, perhaps by the end of the year.
The gates monitor the radioactivity level of any vehicle or container that pass through. If radioactivity is discovered, customs officers divert the truck through a second detector. The type of radioactive material present is then compared to a computer record of the contents of the container to make sure that the two match.
About 1.5 percent of the 6,000 trucks that go through the gates presently in operation are diverted for closer scrutiny, customs officials say. Usually, the detector is triggered by a naturally radioactive -- but harmless -- material, such as ceramic tiles, McCabe said.
The gates are the final part of a multilayered strategy in which the department targets containers most likely to carry weapons, and subjects them to extra scrutiny.
And the scrutiny starts long before a ship reaches the port.
At least 24 hours before a container is shipped to the U.S., the vessel owner must send authorities here detailed information about the shipment, such as the contents, the company sending it and where the goods originated.
A computer analyzes the data, as do customs officials in New Jersey and Virginia. They look for factors that mark the container as suspicious, such as coming from a region where terrorists are known to be active or containing items that do not normally come from the area, McCabe said. About one in 10 are deemed suspicious.
Containers that raise concern are often inspected at the foreign port, McCabe said.
"The idea is to push the border as far away as possible and identify a potential problem as early in the supply chain as possible," he said.
Suspicious containers that get to New Jersey and New York are also scrutinized by customs officials such as Inspector James Ginty and his team, armed with a gamma-ray imaging system known as Vehicle and Cargo Inspection System (VACIS).
At 11:30 a.m. Monday, Ginty and his partner were hunched over computer screens in a white pickup truck on a dockside on Staten Island.
To their left, a tractor-trailer carrying a 40-foot-long container full of pens, furniture parts and other items shipped from Taiwan inched past a gamma-ray camera scanning the inside of the box.
The men studied the image as it appears on the computer. They put the container's identification number into the computer, pulled up details of the contents and compared them with the gamma-ray image onscreen. "What's on there should match the container," Ginty said, satisfied that it did.
Outside the truck, a customs officer checked for nuclear materials with a hand-held radiation detector. Another officer made sure the container seal hadn't been broken.
Of those targeted, 90 percent are cleared, and the rest are inspected further, often by opening the container and its contents.
"We are managing the risk," McCabe said. "There are people who say we should be doing more containers. That's what the terrorists want. The terrorists want to stop our economy."
Although the department has come across no weapons of mass destruction with its port security effort, officials have found drugs, conventional weapons and other contraband, McCabe said.
Several businessmen who rely on the ports say the customs department has done a good job balancing the demand for security with the need to avoid disruptions to business.
Michael Skinner, vice president at William B. Skinner Inc, a Carlstadt-based broker and logistics provider, said he had expected "more delays and more chaos" after the 9/11 attacks.
There are delays, he said, but "the situation is not prohibitive -- it's not preventing people from transacting business."
Critics, however, say the department's strategy is still lacking.
A Government Accountability Office report in April concluded that some foreign ports lacked staff or equipment to do a thorough inspection.
P.J. Crowley, a homeland security expert at a Washington, D.C., public policy agency, said a more technologically advanced system is needed, as well as a more secure computer system.
"A terrorist can go into the computer, make a suspect shipment into a conforming shipment, and then the odds are they won't inspect the box," he said. What's needed, he said, is a vigorous push to develop technology that would do a gamma-ray search of all containers, not just a small percentage.
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